(A LIT CANDLE IS PLACED ON THE PULPIT) It doesn’t look like much, does it? Yeah … I agree. But this candle represents more than thirty years of my life.
Well, no … that’s not exactly right. The candle represents one particular day each year for each of the last thirty-plus years of my life. That particular day … always a Sunday, and almost always in February … has been the final day of the winter youth retreat that I have led for more than thirty years here at St. Peter’s. Because every year, the retreat closes with a communion service on Sunday morning. This candle has been one of a couple of candles that I have used for those thirty years. Between retreats it has lived in a drawer in our flower sacristy for the past 15 years that we have occupied this 2005 addition to out church building … before that it lived in an empty candle box that was in my old office over in the rotation Sunday School wing. As some of you know, I am a creature of habit, and so I’ll continue to use this candle and its partner for yet a few more years … probably until it burns away to nothing.
This candle has seen a lot over the years. It has seen a lot of great young adults, who came out into the woods for a weekend to talk about their faith and live out that faith with their friends and advisors. Teens who have discussed movies like Jesus Christ Superstar and the Shack … and who have wrestled with social issues like racism and warfare and (this year) the blessings and curses of social media. Like our teens, this candle has burned brightly and warmly … shining before others, as today’s lesson from the Beatitudes phrases it. And the light it bears has been symbolic of the praise from the lips of this pastor and our advisors when we reflected on the behavior of our teens who joined us for each winter retreat …. most of the time … until they’re not.
Because when you take teens away from their parents for a weekend … and they stuff their faces at night with the candy that fills half of their travel bags … and become sleep deprived because they stay up all night … well, then you sometimes get something other than light. You get boys that will use the rope that holds their sleeping bag together, to secure the door of the bathroom so that the present occupant cannot get out. Or you’ll have girls that stay awake until the wee hours of the morning, so that they can tip toe out of their room and pound on the doors of boys that are trying to sleep. Or … and I will admit that this is in my eyes the most creative prank I have seen … you’ll have a taller heavier boy shimmy up to the top of a thin sapling of a tree, so that his weight bends the tree top down to ground level … where he holds the tree top down until a smaller thinner girl can get a handhold on the top of the tree … so that when the boy lets go, the girl is swung through the air in an arc over the top of the tree, like a circus acrobat. Yes, sometimes what shines forth from our youth is anything but the light of Christ. In that sense, our youth are just like you and me. They do amazing and faithful things with their lives … well … until they don’t.
And THAT, my friends is why we see this diversity of material from today’s short section of the Sermon on the Mount. Because try as we might … and all good intentions aside … we cannot always deliver on what Jesus expects from us as the children of God. We are imperfect … we sometimes want what we want instead of what God wants of us … we are sinners. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You look in the mirror each morning when you brush your teeth and wash the sleep from your eyes, and see a person who is sometimes more imperfect than you care to admit. You sit across the table from family members who at times can make your life a little nuts by the bad choices you make … just as you make them crazy with a few of your choices. And you live in a world filled with people just like you … people who sometimes seem to embody the life of a sinner more than they do that of a saint. Now … we know this truth of our sinfulness conceptually, right. We admit to that sin in our Bible Study discussions … and we confess that sin every Sunday morning in church … and we are reminded of that sin by those who are the victims of our sinful choices. Yes, we know all this. But we allow ourselves to be fooled when we read words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel, as we do today. Because what are the words with which that that the sermon begins in the first few verses of Matthew chapter 5?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
We plaster these words all over the place … on greeting cards … on our bumper stickers … on our refrigerator magnets. We want to live in this world of being blessed … this world of being light and salt for others. And the beatitudes allow us that illusion for just long enough that we think we’re going to hear ONLY good news. And it purrs along with these positive, hopeful and healing words for 16 verses … right into the start of our lesson today which opens with Jesus proclamation that you and I are the salt of the earth … that we are the light of the world. But then the hammer comes down and we are warned about breaking the commandments … and teaching others to break the commandments. And if we read further in the three chapters of Matthew that record the Sermon on the Mount … we’ll start hearing about anger … and adultery … and retaliation … judging … and self-deception. These words in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are difficult words … filled with blessings and curses … populated with hope and despair. Lutherans, of course have a phrase that we love which describes this point and counterpoint language that we find in this section of Matthew’s Gospel – Martin Luther called it “Law and Gospel.” The rhythm between trying to do what is right, but being unable to live up to our aspirations. You’ve heard that phrase law and Gospel a lot over the years if you come to church regularly … or sit in on educational classes or Bible Studies … or read your rostered leaders’ letters and devotions and blog posts. Law and Gospel … the tug of war that which occurs inside your head and heart each time you make an important decision in life … the temptation to be disobedient, when you want to be obedient … our life as sinful humans.
Sometimes I struggle to find contemporary language that speaks to this push me-pull you reality of being a person of faith. Phrases like Law & Gospel … Sin & Grace … Life & Death … Disobedience & Faith are overused, and sometimes sound a little flat to me. But this past week I came across a phrase that helped me embrace this tension between our hopes and our failures in life. It comes from a sportswriter, if you can believe that … but a sports writer you may remember … Mitch Albom … the author of seven best sellers … including his first and best-known work … the best-selling memoir of all time … Tuesdays with Morrie. His latest book, Finding Chika, offers a phrase that I think speaks to this tension we feel between faith and disobedience, light and darkness, life and death … the phrase is “Happy tears.” The context for this phrase is the life of a Haitian child that Mitch and his wife Janine first met in 2010 following an earthquake that decimated Haiti. The child is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor from an extremely rare disease called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma … DIPG for short … a disease that after two years of intense treatment, takes CHika in her seventh year of life. Here are Albom’s words, written as he remembers Chicka’s final visit to Haiti while alive, just before her 5th birthday:
After six months in America, we take Chika home for Christmas. The holiday is a big deal at the mission, laden with traditions: a Nativity play, stockings hung in the dormitory; a once-a-year meal of goat, fried plantains and pikliz, a spicy pickled cabbage dish. Chika is giddy with excitement. The night before, she crawls on the bed and tickles me until I beg her to stop. Then she asks what it going to happen, step by step.
As I go through it, her eyes drift away. She doesn’t look like she did when she left Haiti. She’s lost hair. She’s lost teeth. The operations. The steroids. I ask if she is scared to be going back. “A little scared,” she says, making a small space between two fingers. “I’m crying happy tears.” She has never used that phrase before. Happy tears. I wonder where she gets such insight. The next morning, for the big day, she wears white tights and sneakers, with a lime-green hoodie over a sleeveless top. We board the plane and she glues to the window. Many of the passengers are Haitian, and she occasionally spins and says, “Hey! They’re talking like me!” As soon as we land in Port-au-Prince, she runs up the jetway, all but leaving me behind. The airport band starts playing, banjo, accordion, guitar, bongo drums, and she dances in the hallway, shaking and twirling in a way that proves she is hope, because only home could liberate such joy. Alain meets us in baggage claim. We load in his vehicle, and Chika hides behind his seat as we drive through the mission gates. The kids have been informed of her return and they are chanting “Chika! Chika!” as we pull in. Alain looks back in amazement and says, “Do you hear this?” “Don’t look at me, Mister Alain!” she squeals. “Look at something else!” When the car door opens, there is a massive rush and the nannies are shouting and the little kids are jumping and there are so many hands around her, lifting her up, as her face is smacked with kisses. When they finally put her down, she wiggles her little black shoes in the dirt. Then she pulls off the hoodie and runs to the swing set, jumps on a swing, and pushes herself higher , as the other kids gather and watch. If I could freeze and moment and give it to her as a gift, it might be this one, flying over the happy expressions of her brothers and sisters as they marvel at her return. I rub my eyes. Happy tears.
The gift of seeing the joy in life, in the midst of brokenness … that is Albom’s description of “happy tears” … both for him and his wife … and for Chika. Maybe that close to how Jesus invites us to see our lives. Tearfully broken by the power of sin, and yet redeemed by the gift and privilege of seeing this life in the broader context of walking in the light of Christ. Happy tears. Amen.